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‘Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders’ Review: A Carbon Copy of ‘American Crime Story’ That Still Works

A period anthology; a true court case; an enviable cast. This American crime story is only held back by the "Law & Order" roots that spawned it.

Law and Order True Crime: The Menendez Brothers Edie Falco NBC

Justin Lubin/NBC

When the original “Law & Order” was cancelled in 2010, people took the news hard. So hard, in fact, that the decades-spanning procedural was mourned publicly on the very network that cancelled it:

“I, for one, love cop shows,” Tracy Jordan says on “30 Rock” (Season 5, Episode 3, “Let’s Stay Together”). “I can’t wait for ‘Law & Order’ to come back,” he adds, right before Grizz whispers in his ear, breaking the bad news.

“Why? It was a tentpole! A tentpole!!” Tracy screams.

Seven years later, he’s not wrong. Though only one of the four spinoffs is still on the air — “Law & Order: SVU” returns September 27 on NBC — the franchise remains a memorable part of the cultural landscape, with its format, music, characters, and storytelling still easily identifiable to millions of viewers. Its influence on other series cannot be understated, including the hit limited series the latest “Law & Order” spinoff is emulating.

Aiming to capitalize on TV’s recent anthology trend, “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” should make die-hard fans happy — like Tracy — as well as curious newcomers looking for another “American Crime Story” before “Versace” hits.

Law and Order True Crime: The Menendez Brothers Miles Gaston Villanueva Gus Halper

That being said, such powerful branding affiliations can be a blessing and a curse. That the new spinoff imitates both its parent and its cousin (or whatever you want to label the relationship between the original “Law & Order” and “American Crime Story”) isn’t the only aspect keeping this limited series from feeling fresh, but it’s the only glaring impediment to a juicy, well-acted, and timely true crime story.

Told in a brief (especially by broadcast standards) eight episodes, “The Menendez Murders” opens with the titular event. Jose (Carlos Gomez) and Kitty Menendez (Lolita Davidovich) are gunned down in the living room of their palatial mansion, blood from their shot-out kneecaps covering the white couch cushions and dripping onto the lush rug.

Initially, no suspects stand out, and the family points out how Jose’s business once had mob ties. Soon, the cops start to examine Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) and Erik Menendez (Gus Halper), the two sons with an ill-fitting alibi and $14 million in motive. Soon, lawyers get involved, including Leslie Abramson (Edie Falco), a defense attorney who’s consistently in front of the camera. She’s introduced delivering a closing argument that contends her client did, in fact, kill his father, but that he should be excused because of his parents’ abusive past.

It works, and Abramson becomes the obvious choice to handle the Menendez brothers. That all this doesn’t happen until the end of the second episode speaks to the series’ growth as well as its hindrances.

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